essay, game, video games

Planescape Torment: The People Problem

[I’ve been playing Planesscape: Torment and blogging my way through it. So far, all I’ve had is Initial Thoughts.]

Coming from a mostly first-person perspective gaming history, I am continually impressed by the different amounts of emotion via tone that can be expressed through the use of just punctuation in Planescape: Torment. Using just text, capitalization and a handful of symbols, I have been able to gleam the thoughts, theme and general feelings from statements printed for me in a box on the screen. It is quite amazing, given my background in seeing three-dimensional models, to see how much I am investing into characters that exist nearly only as just text on the screen. And that’s just the main characters. The people in the various parts of the city have been quite another problem.

In most of my many travels in games like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas — in which I’ve invested sixty plus hours each — most of the people I’ve run into say very little. They may have a line or two. Most don’t even trigger the conversation system. The same can be said for even older games like Final Fantasy VII and Skies of Arcadia. People, humanoids, just don’t have much to say if they are even around at all. Most of their worlds, especially those of the post-apocalyptic kind, are empty of nearly every kind thing but threats. It is you versus the world in a series of attacks that represent your development in the game. There may be pockets of conversation, as in the case of the newer Fallout games, but rarely and for brief intervals. This is not the case in Planescape: Torment. Pretty much every one will talk to you.

I know I have commented before on the amount of written words in Planescape: Torment before. I know I said it was astounding. Unless you have played the game, you have no idea what that means. This game is dense with words. People will talk to you about things. Sometimes they are related to what you are currently doing via the quests you have and other times they will attempt to sell you things you do not need or convince you to take up sides in arguments that, as far as I can tell, have no real meaning to the overall plot. There is constant reading. Thousands and thousands of words read over a few hours in a single session of play. All of these words written out, some not ever seen in a single play-through, all to solve one central issue: the people problem.

If you want your world to achieve some level of verisimilitude, you will need to add people. Humanoids. Sentience. Something for the player to communicate with. These people populate your world and make the living areas appear to be, well, lived in. They serve as artifacts of how big or small the world of the game is — more people mean a bigger perceived world. They are there for the player to interact with and, via whatever communication system be it menu or verb-noun combinations of objects, to learn or gain something with and through in order to help the player. Merchants, for example, fit this idea. As do quest givers. And character to delivery exposition or explanations of locales. However, they present a problem that is central to their very presence: do they really matter?

See, in the games I’ve mentioned before — Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas — most people have no real impact on anything other than to fill space. They look like they are doing things and help to make a city-space looked lived and populated. But they have no real influence. They might have a few lines, as I said. They are mostly there to serve as a visual delimiter to that of the space, moving bars to create the illusion of reality. The same can be said of non-player characters in older Final Fantasy titles and other role-playing games. The people in those worlds, for the most part, do not matter and thus do not have many if any words to speak to the player. Their very importance in the game is proportional to what they can say. The more they have as choices for the player to hear or read, the more they need to be there.

This is one of the things I have taken away from playing Planescape Torment: Black Isle Studios’ solution to this problem of having people or not and what to have them say was, it seems, the extreme of all possible choices. Instead of just having some important people, speakers, and other people, place fillers, they decided to puts word in every mouth.

I have spent several hours just walking in one section of one portion of the city talking to person after person. After person. They all have back-stories, jobs and some even pace around. In the case of several individuals, I have been warned against talking to them by party members for various faction reasons, which leads to even more story about why one member of one faction should not be talking to another. There have been tangents leading to other tangents in just one conversation where I’ve learned detailed knowledge about places within the area of Planescape where I, as a character, will probably never see or set foot. Some few select individuals know vast details about races, conflicts and even places that do not actually matter to the plot of the game at all.

If any developer wants to know how to hook me into their world, let me tell you: solve the people problem like this. Make every single person important. Even if it just the woman standing on the corner — Planescape: Torment has way too many “harlots”, it’s ridiculous — or the simple beggar. Breathe life into your world by giving every single person a name, a purpose and a job. Give them meaning. Your world, and my play experience, will improve because of it. (Yes, yes, I know. It’s lots of work. Do it anyway.)